How to Layer for Winter

January 8, 2021
Paula ChampagneA girl models how to layer for winter as she basks in the winter sunlight on an AMC Family Adventure excursion in White Mountain National Forest.

According to an old Norwegian proverb, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Winter throws its fair share of bad weather at those of us who like to get outside year-round. But, with the right clothing, you can safely and comfortably head outdoors in the cold and snow. Knowing the meaning of “good” clothing, carrying the right layers, and understanding how to layer for winter can make all the difference between an enjoyable winter outing and a miserable or risky one.

 

Keeping the Heat

In the simplest terms, keeping your skin and layers warm and dry is the main goal when dressing for winter outdoor recreation. More specifically, one’s clothing choices either manage moisture, maintain heat, and provide a barrier between the skin and the elements—or they do not. Winter’s “bad weather” elements—cold temperatures, wind, and precipitation—all steal your body heat. That’s because your body is warmer than those elements, and heat transfers from warm to colder objects in an effort to equilibrate. Basically, when the wind whips across your skin, or you sit in a cold snow bank, or you just stand still outside, your body heat is being pulled away. When you factor in vigorous physical activity, you also add sweat into the equation. Body heat is pulled away 25 times faster from skin that is wet from perspiration than dry skin. (For more details on the physics of getting cold, check out AMC’s Essential Guide to Winter Recreation.)

 

‘Be Bold, Start Cold’

Sweat, and moisture in general, is the enemy that can most quickly make you cold in the winter. Preventing moisture from the start is pretty simple. First, use “be bold and start cold” as a rule of thumb. When you layer up for your winter adventure, you should be a little chilly before you get moving. If you’re warm while you’re standing around, you will quickly begin sweating once you start moving and risk saturating your layers. Hike, snowshoe, or ski in fewer layers than you might think and have plenty of layers in your pack to throw on when you do stop moving.

 

how to layer for winter
Alexandra KosibaA man layers up for an adventure outside AMC’s Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins in Maine’s 100-mile Wilderness.

Adjust as you Go

Part of the winter outdoor experience is the constant game of stopping to layer up and down. If you start to feel a bit too warm, take a layer off before you start sweating. If it starts to snow or rain, layer back up with a waterproof shell before you lose all your valuable body heat.

If you find that you’re in your thinnest layer and are still sweating, back off your pace and take it slow. Take more frequent and shorter breaks for water and snacks, instead of a long lunch break, to avoid cooling down too much. It’s all about adjusting and adapting to the winter conditions.

 

Dress like an Onion

Layers, layers, layers. In the winter, having a variety of layers that work together in a modular system is crucial. Layer using the W.I.S.E. system, and you’ll be ready for anything: wicking, next-to-skin baselayers; insulating mid layers like a fleece or puffy down jacket; sheltering layers like a rain jacket and rain pants; and extra layers for if an emergency arises. And, of course, don’t forget the hats, gloves, insulated waterproof boots, and wool socks. All these layers can work together in different combinations that can be adjusted for whatever specific conditions you encounter. You might find yourself totally bundled up for the worst conditions or peeling back the layers on more mild winter days, but options are key.

Paula ChampagneDressing in layers is especially important in high-intensity winter activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing that heat up the body quicker.

Fabric Content Matters

You may have heard the phrase, “cotton kills.” Though seemingly dramatic, there is truth to it. Cotton is a water absorbing fiber, and as you sweat or get snowed on, that moisture soaks into fabric, sits on your skin, and will cause you to get cold quickly. This can be especially dangerous in winter. Instead of cotton, choose synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon, or natural wicking fibers like wool. These fabrics draw moisture away from your skin, and are more efficient at holding in heat even when wet. All your layers should be made from these non-cotton wicking fibers. (Underwear, too!)

A note about insulation: when you buy an insulating puffy jacket, it will either be down-filled or synthetic. Though down tends to be lighter, it loses its ability to warm you if the feathers become wet. Down can also be expensive. Synthetic insulation tends to be heavier and bulkier but retains insulating ability even when wet. Your insulation choice will depend on the climate you’re most likely out in.

Get Advice

Dialing in your personal layering system is a process best tackled thoroughly. Try on lots of brands to dial in your fit and comfort, and make sure what you buy fits under or over other layers in your system. If you aren’t ready to commit, AMC can help. Test out demo gear at several of our lodges. Staff at AMC’s Highland Center can help you gear up with the proper layers for a winter hike. Or join one of AMC’s Winter Outdoor Skills Weekends, where you can try out gear and get trail-tested advice from AMC’s knowledgeable outdoor guides.


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Clare Arentzen

Clare is an outdoor guide based out of AMC's Highland Center.